Sri Lanka is a beautiful country. From its beautiful sandy beaches to lush rain forests, there’s so much to say about it. My wife and I have been several times and have encountered entertaining issues on each trip. Here are some tips from what we learned while traveling around this teardrop-shaped island for three months.
The goose that lays the golden egg
You’re a tourist with money, and they know that. For some reason, many countries have decided to charge a higher price for tourists than for locals, and Sri Lanka is no exception. Not just a little higher, but where most attractions are just as expensive or more than in the States. For instance, the national zoo costs $20 for an American. However, what we saw was a zoo in poor repair with very few animals. The same conditions applied to the aquarium, the national museum and botanical gardens. I really don’t mind the cost if it’s worth the visit, but, unfortunately, most of them aren’t. Moreover, if you obligate yourself to go to each place, you’ll quickly dwindle your tourist funds. For a country best known for its glorious, uncrowded beaches, breathtaking temples, tea plantations and wildlife preserves, my recommendation is to save your money for these attractions that are sure to be more memorable.
Also, the locals will extend a warm welcome to you when you’re dealing in business. Be careful, though, as this is often a gimmick, a slick way to sell you something you may or may not need. Learn to barter, be sure to count your change, and you’ll be fine.
A gossipy world
I realized quickly that gossiping is more than just a pastime in Sri Lanka, it’s a national sport. Whenever we walked down the streets, we could feel all eyes on us and see people whispering to each other. I wanted to remind them that there was no need to chat quietly with one another, as I don’t speak the language. You just have to know that the moment you move on, you’re no longer a point of discussion, because they have moved on to the next talking point. If you find you really need a break from this, then visit a local temple; it’s like the safe zone in a game of tag, and there are plenty of them around the country.
An urban jungle
I wouldn’t say Sri Lankans are intentionally cruel to animals, after all they won’t eat most of them. It’s more of a general lack of understanding and even fear. They don’t spay or neuter dogs or cats, because they regard that as being cruel. Hence, the overpopulation and the creation of packs of flea-bitten, undernourished mutts roaming helplessly around and eating scraps tossed on the streets. The same goes for horses, cows and sheep, among others. Every stray animal I came across was loving and friendly, but the Sri Lankans fear them, as if they were going to become sick even if they looked at them. Locals yelled at us if we so much as even touched one. There are several animal groups that are working hard to educate the people and the government, and they’re further trying to capture, neuter and give a home to the stray animals; so, it is improving slowly but surely.
Sri Lanka is for lovers
Man loves woman, woman loves man, man loves man, woman loves woman in a country that deems same-sex activity illegal. It’s all very confusing, so let me explain it the way it was told to me. Before you get married in Sri Lanka, you aren’t allowed to copulate with the opposite sex, which is, again, confusing. What you’ll see from the young, single people is men holding hands, hugging, sitting on each other’s laps and general friendliness with one other. You’ll also see women holding hands, but, surprisingly, they don’t appear as friendly with each other as the men.
Then, there are the real love birds, those too young to marry but not willing to wait until marriage to rock each other’s worlds. If there was a semi-private area, say behind a tree, on a bus or in a public square, you’re almost always guaranteed to find a young man with a young woman attempting to take their relationship to the next level. It’s become such an issue that there are signs posted everywhere that remind these love birds that copulation in public isn’t allowed.
Moreover, at some point recently, the young men of Sri Lanka have discovered the joys of finding a cougar from far away countries. This makes it nearly impossible for a Caucasian woman of any age to walk around town, regardless if their husbands and kids are with them, and not hear calls of love and affection from adoring, young men.
Money makes the world go round
A supposedly “seasoned traveler” told us that people accept American money everywhere in the country. Although prior to leaving the airport, we decided to exchange $200 for Sri Lanka rupees just to have some local currency in our pockets. In the end, it was a smart thing to do, as there are hardly any ATMs in the country. There were times when we had to travel as much as 40 minutes on a tuc-tuc just to find one. Moreover, if you want to exchange money, you almost always have to become a sort of criminal and go to a black market to do it. No one, except for a few expensive hotels and stores in the big cities, takes credit cards. Once you’re out of the capital city of Colombo, it’s cash only: at restaurants and hotels, for buses and trains—everywhere.
Get your motor runnin’
Sri Lanka just built a brand new highway, and this is a very big deal for them. Ask someone to show it to you, and you’ll actually make their day. Though it looks like any other road to drive, tourists shouldn’t. Once you experience life in the fast lane here, you’ll understand why. Here are the options that will get you from point A to point B:
Tuc-tuc: This small golf cart with a lawnmower engine zigzags between buses, cars, and trucks and ignores all speed limits, if there are any. You just have to hold on tight and pray for daylight.
Buses: Privately owned bus companies operate according to their own schedule. In most cases, there isn’t one. If you travel this way, ensure that the bus has air conditioning—a bus full of sweaty people in a humid and hot country, you do the math.
Trains: These are always late and are more like a scary amusement park ride.
Private driver: It sounds decadent, but it’s not. The time you spend with him is also the time for him to get all his errands done. Don’t worry, you’ll reach your destination at some point—just relax and enjoy the ride. You can even make a few extra stops if you want.
Let them eat curry!
Everybody loves to offer you food. Even if you’ve just eaten a huge dish at auntie’s house, the uncle will also insist on feeding you. Sometimes you’re lucky and it’s just bananas and cookies, while other times you may spend hours on a five-course meal. You cannot refuse. Trust me, you just can’t. Therefore, it’s best just to roll with it and burn the calories off while sightseeing the next day.
You’ll also notice that rice and curry run the country. They love it so much that they eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and anytime in between. The great part about curry is that it really doesn’t matter what’s inside. It could be fruit, vegetables or fish, and it will always be delicious. The only thing that varies is what comes with it. It could be rice, noodles, milk rice, yummy string hoppers or roti. Just remember they love MSG and put it in everything. So, drink lots of water (yes, it’s safe to drink the water). If your hungry on the run, “buns” are served on every corner. These are cheap, little rounds of sweet, soft bread filled with various savory items, such as spicy fish or vegetables. You’ll find that they’re addicting, and one is never enough (unless you get the one covered in flies)—bon appétit!
A fly in the ointment
This is a really hot and humid country, and the flies are beasts in the masses from mid- January through April. Bring a super-sized, super strong fly swatter or two. The best time to go to Sri Lanka is from September to early January.
Hold the phone!
From the richest to the poorest, everyone has a cell phone, sometimes two. Even a man cutting coconuts down from a tree will be talking or texting on his phones. For Sri Lankans, buying a phone card is like buying coffee for us, an addiction that they’ll gladly pay for at any cost. They carry multiple sim cards for different phone providers, switching them because they know it’s cheaper to talk with another person on the same type of sim.
If you’re going to stay in the country for an extended period of time, then it’s best to jump on the bandwagon and get a sim card, too. Though it’s tempting to make a “quick call” to family and friends in your home country, it will come at a premium.
Advertisements for porn movies are common sights on any large moving mode of transportation, powered by either a motor or cow. Men will stop to watch the slow parade go by and discuss the titles, as if My Wife’s Lover were the latest news. We just winked and pretended to be excited when the driver pointed to his sign.
A spin to the bottle
If you’re craving your daily dose of refreshment drinks, then go to a local store, buy your favorite from the cashier, who will open it for you, and take a seat in one of the chairs provided at the front. It’s not a café, you just aren’t allowed to leave with the glass bottle no matter how much you beg. The reason is that the shopkeepers own the bottles and recycle them. Unfortunately, you may also end up quenching your thirst with a drink that may be cold, somewhat cold or even hot—there’s no telling. You can go to the same store each day, and it’ll be a different temperature each time. It’s also fun to see the truck that delivers the bottles to the stores, because the workers ride precariously in small wooden crates on top.
Wake up and smell the tea
The national drink is tea, and it accounts for 2% of Sri Lanka’s GDP. Tea tourism is also on the rise, as many arrive to see these lush plantations in the central hills. So, it should be no surprise that it’s the most common item you’ll drink while visiting. Coffee, on the other hand, doesn’t carry the same glory, and it’s almost always a loose-grained confection that has more powdered milk and sugar than actual coffee. Plus, to add insult to injury, coffee almost always comes in little, five-ounce cups. If you cannot live without a nice, strong cup of black java in the morning, this might not be the country for you.
Yes, no, maybe so
When someone shakes their head from side to side with a slight wiggle (we called it the tick of Sri Lanka), it actually means “yes,” “no,” “I don’t know,” and, of course, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” It’s completely universal throughout the country. Now, if you have ever seen the head-wiggle, then you understand what I’m talking about. If not, once you are greeted with it, then you’ll understand. I would post myself trying it out, but I think it’s something you have to grow up doing.
Auntie and Uncle
You call anyone older than you “auntie” or “uncle.” Yes, anyone. It could be the old man on the street, the woman sitting next to you on the bus, even a tuc-tuc driver—the country simply becomes your cousin twice removed. I must say that the people are nice; alhough when they tell you that you’re fat, it’s actually a term of endearment. However, I’m still not convinced.